Fostering Resilience During Uncertainty: How HR Leaders Can Support Team Communication and Connection During Social Distancing

Effective team communication is always important, but it is now imperative as more people begin working from home or other remote locations to reduce potential exposure to coronavirus. The move to virtual working has appeal and feels like a simple answer to a complex problem. However, physical isolation can lead to a “hunker down” mentality, which, if not managed carefully, has unintended consequences and leads to decreased resilience.

Humans are social creatures, so many of our resilience resources have a social element. Working and living in isolation creates unintended consequences for our resilience reserves. Here are five practical and proactive strategies HR leaders and executives can employ to maintain resilience and foster high-performing teams during social distancing.

1. Support

Everyone needs support, not just in times of uncertainty. Support comes in two forms: emotional support, which is processing how we feel about an event, and practical support, advice, or coaching to find a solution to our challenge. It’s easy to underestimate how much support we get from everyday conversations, whether a quick corridor chat to offload concerns about an initiative we are leading, or a five-minute conversation at a colleague’s desk to gain perspective on a problem we are trying to solve. These micro boosts of support rarely happen in a virtual working context where incidental conversations are less likely on a Zoom call. Even for employees accustomed to using technology to work virtually, conversations are more likely to be task-driven than to be about making a personal connection.

Leaders using increased virtual means to manage teams in an effort to contain COVID-19 can best support their people by re-creating corridor conversations virtually. These may be five-minute check-in calls or a message via digital platforms (e.g., Teams, Slack). It sounds simple, but the small connections accumulate and help employees feel supported.

Working remotely means people can be ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and often, the onus is on them to reach out for help, which most people are reticent to do. Those working in global organizations should be mindful of their team communication and reach out more regularly to colleagues in impacted regions.

2. Confidence

Hunkering down to get through a crisis can inadvertently lead to a loss of confidence. Why? People largely derive confidence through their interactions with the world. Working in teams and interacting across an organization provides them with daily feedback on their contributions. Their ideas are reinforced in meetings, they see an organizational output connected to their role, and they can more tangibly see the value they bring to their team and the organization as a whole. Remote working decreases the situational “feedback loops” people subconsciously rely on, and this erodes confidence over time. If levels of confidence dip, people lose their ability to respond to challenges or setbacks in their work and personal lives. Losing confidence slows people down; they second guess themselves and remote working limits the reassurances and encouragement they might otherwise get from the person sitting next to them.

At this time of volatility, leaders need to increase positive feedback and assurances to their people. In virtual interactions, pause to recognize small milestones and individuals’ contributions to team objectives. Consider what team members are doing well to maintain focus and momentum in their roles and acknowledge this. Help them understand the value of their contribution and show them you notice.

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3. Persistence

Increased social distancing from work and personal communities also means it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. With uncertainty surrounding the impact of the virus, people are likely to focus on short-term decisions and actions. Remote working exacerbates this, as less connection with others leads to narrower perspectives. When people become focused on the short term, they lose the drive to persist when confronted with setbacks. Leaders can combat this by reminding teams of their organization’s enduring purpose and connect their current work to other teams. Business coaching conversations will become even more important during social distancing and remote work to help people identify solutions when they feel overcome by the challenges they are facing or the uncertainty they need to navigate. In your team communications, take time to explicitly link individual tasks or progress on current initiatives while remote working to the team’s longer-term goals. If they have to adapt outputs or priorities due to social distancing, help them see how they are still contributing to the greater good.

4. Recovery

Managing physical energy levels is important to provide a good foundation for mental well-being. For many people, health and well-being routines are centered around work rhythms. They might work out in a fitness center near their office, meet colleagues for lunch or walk to public transportation as part of their commute. For those who have moved to a remote working situation, creating a new routine is important to break up the day and maintain energy levels. There are many digital on-demand forms of exercise available, and walking meetings will be possible for many using the phone. However, leaders should help their people think through the small physical and mental breaks they benefit from throughout the day in an office setting: refilling their water bottle, chatting with co-workers in the elevator. These incidental opportunities help people stay active and take breaks while connecting with others.  Help team members working remotely find ways to break and recharge through connection with neighbors and family members in lieu of co-workers. Also, while the move to remote working might initially be appealing, the novelty will quickly wear off for many.  Setting up digital forms of social connection, where teams can connect at a more personal level will help keep morale up.

5. Adapting

Lastly, leaders can help people make sense of the new context and enable them to solve challenges they have not faced before. A common response might be to try to continue with existing plans and objectives, albeit via virtual means while waiting for things to return to normal. However, the pandemic presents a reason to change our assumptions to re-consider how we are working with customers, suppliers, and other partners. It is likely we are going to look back on this time as one that led creative thinking and new ways of tackling business challenges. Leaders can foster this culturally agile mindset in their people by encouraging them to use the challenges to create new opportunities.

Leaders have a busy time ahead, their attention is going to be pulled in many directions, but they must ensure they continue to give focus to their people through effective team communication. Leaders can front foot the unpredictable and volatile times ahead by building resilience in their people through small but meaningful measures.

Shelley Winter is global head of thought leadership and solution design at YSC Consulting, the world’s premier independent provider of leadership strategy services. Shelley leads a team of consultants, researchers and solution architects to create new thinking and identify leadership insights to support client teams. www.ysc.com

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